Tuesday 4 November 2008

Book review: Rubicon

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Tom Holland

Abacus; New edition (10 Jun 2004)

While I'm a fantasy kid at heart, I'm a historian by formal training and I've always had a deeply-ingrained love of history. For a long time I was something of a medievalist, with the Wars of the Roses a particular fascination, but gradually it's the ancient world that has become my main interest. The Romans have always fascinated me so I thought I'd better remedy the huge gap in my knowledge of them and their world.

Rubicon of course isn't suited to anyone wanting to learn about the entire Roman story, as it focuses solely on the Roman republic (509 - 49 BC), not the later Roman empire. Over the course of his book, Holland reveals how the Roman republic grew from being a regional superpower into the greatest power in the Mediterranean - and a it's a truly fascinating story.

It's certainly not a simple task to tell the tale of the Roman republic, but what Holland manages to do so well is to take an ungainly cast list and imbue each figure with real personality and resonance. With such an extensive number of participants, it would be all to easy to write a history of the republic where the names are just words and little more. Holland however manages to flesh out these great public figures - Pompey, Caesar, Cato, Cicero, etc - and restore them to life within the pages of his book.

Furthermore, Holland writes with a real wit and verve, spinning an absorbing tale that never lets up in pace or gets bogged down in detail. Sometimes you do feel that he's barely scratching the surface of certain issues (for example, the uprising of Spartacus is dealt with in just three or so pages) but given that he's covering a period of some 450-odd years, this is entirely understandable. What he does manage to do extremely effectively is paint a vivid picture of life for the Patrician classes in the Roman republic, and explain exactly how the politics of Rome worked. Rubicon is a political study first and foremost, because it was the politics (for politics, read backstabbing, open violence and even murder) that occurred in the Senate, rather than heroics on the battlefield, that really defined the republic.

The sheer intensity of Roman politics was what really enthralled me - reading Holland's accounts of all the political heavyweights squaring up to each other was simply fascinating. Modern politics might be seen as something of a cutthroat business, but it's nothing compared to the politics of ancient Rome. We're talking of an environment where alliances changed on an almost daily basis, where corruption was rife (almost anyone could be bought off) and where some members of the senate - quite literally - got away with murder. Political success and prestige was what every high-ranking Roman most desired and the force that drove them on. Failure simply wasn't an option. It was this collective desire for glory - and the fear of defeat - that enabled the Roman republic to become so great...yet also caused its downfall, as the old traditions got trampled beneath the power wielded by certain individuals.

Of course, ancient history wouldn't be ancient history without some nasty deaths, and there's a fair few in Rubicon. The young woman that killed herself by swallowing hot coals from a brazier deserves a special mention, but my favourite by some distance is the fate afforded by one Roman official (I can't remember his name). Said Roman official decided to instigate an invasion of Pontus - a kingdom in modern-day northern Turkey - simply to swell the coffers of the republic (and his own). When the invasion backfired, the official was captured by Mithridates, the King of Pontus, and had molten gold poured down his throat - so he literally choked on the very gold he had wanted to seize. Very droll, those crafty men of Pontus. You can also draw a parallel here with the fate of one of George R. R. Martin's characters...

The only real complaint I had with Rubicon was the lack of an appendix - it would have been extremely useful to have a list of all the figures to remind the reader who they are, as it's difficult to remember who is who at times, as the Romans seem to have had a real penchant for naming their sons - and daughters - names beginning with 'C.' Subsequently there were times when I found myself unable to remember who certain people were, but this is a reasonably minor complaint.

All things considered, Rubicon is an absorbing, accessible recounting of the rise and fall of the Roman republic, and offers an excellent oversight of the politics of the era, and the personal fortunes of all the major players of the Roman world.

Verdict: dddd


Adam Whitehead said...

I read this a few years ago and it was pretty good. Timely as well, as I read just before the first season of ROME aired, and it gave me a good grounding to enjoy the (historically dubious at times) show.

James said...

I never got into that Rome series for some reason. Might have to try and pick it up on the cheap and give it another go.

Iain said...

You should Holland's book Persian Fire. It covers the Greaco-Persian wars of the fifty century BC. Brilliant book. Full of wonderful anecdotes, rousing battles, sneaky Athenians, heroically laconic Spartans and devilish Persians. As I said quite brilliant.

He also writes cracking horror fiction. The Vampyre which tells the story of how Lord Byron becomes a creature of the night is really good. As is Supping with Panthers which manages to fit in Thuggees, vampires, Lord Byron, Bram Stoker and Jack the Ripper. Which makes for fun reading.